Cooper Hewitt: Activating Smithsonian Open Access

When the Smithsonian Institute launched Open Access in February 2020, copyright restrictions were removed from millions of digital collection images and nearly two centuries of data. Since then, creatives, researchers, and collaborators from around the world have downloaded, transformed, and re-shared this content for any purpose free, and without restriction. Supported by Verizon 5G Labs, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Interaction Lab recently launched “Activating Smithsonian Open Access” (ASOA), an open call for designers to submit new digital interactions and innovative tools that enable play and discovery with the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections. Cooper Hewitt hopes to identify compelling projects that the Interaction Lab might explore for wider use across the Smithsonian in the future.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum located on Museum Mile, NYC

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt’s design collection contains over 215,000 objects that span thirty centuries. Over 95% of that collection is digitized and available online through the Museum’s collection portal. On-site visitors can interact with the collection through dedicated exhibitions installed on the Museum’s second floor. This exhibition series called “Selects” invites a guest curator to explore a theme or tell a story using works in the permanent collection. “Since the Museum reopened in 2014, Cooper Hewitt has offered the opportunity to play with digital collections on-site by using one of our multi-touch digital tables, and playing with wallcoverings in the projection-based “Immersion Room,” said Rachel Ginsberg, Interaction lab Director. “In addition to museum visits, students and educators may encounter the museum’s collection through the growing Smithsonian Learning Lab collection, which provides teaching tools for educators and caregivers, and free virtual Design Field Trips for K-12 students across the country, which explore the design process and build connections to Cooper Hewitt’s collection.”

Cooper Hewitt’s “The Pen” offers visitors “collect” and “save” objects from around the galleries and explore more of the online collections database

Interaction Lab

Launched in 2019, the Interaction Lab is a research and development program, or as Cooper Hewitt calls it, “a lab without walls.” It is focused on visitor experience that’s closely related to Cooper Hewitt’s mission as the Smithsonian Design Museum. “By convening, experimenting and co-creating with museum practitioners, the design community, and the public, we’re reimagining the Cooper Hewitt experience and exploring futures for museum experience broadly,” said Ginsberg. The Lab’s work falls roughly into four interconnected areas: visitor experience research, thought leadership, design commissions, partnerships (for research and prototyping), and public programming.

“In our research and thought leadership work, provocations originate from the Interaction Lab, but we conduct the work in collaboration with others,” said Ginsberg. Cooper Hewitt’s recent publication Tools and Approaches for Transforming Museum Experience was co-authored by a diverse group of museum practitioners working across visitor experience. “Sometimes a program will cross multiple areas, like Activating Smithsonian Open Access,” said Ginsberg. “That’s a partnership with Verizon 5G Labs that is also a commissioning program. Public programming for the Interaction Lab is connected to everything we do.”

Cooper Hewitt’s initial goal for the Interaction Lab was to explore the future of the Museum experience. Cooper Hewitt spent the first year of the Lab’s existence mapping opportunities in the museum to understand how best to invest in staff time and resources. “Early in the process, we established values that would drive our work–that it would be cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and as transparent as possible,” said Ginsberg. “We would build on our identity as a design museum by inviting people into our own design process to think and learn with us.”

Activating Smithsonian Open Access

Working with Verizon 5G Labs, Cooper Hewitt opened a call for designers, technology teams, creators, etc. to submit proposals to stimulate new ideas for digital interactions with the more than 3 million objects in the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections.

Each project must include an audience objective, offer wide access for both the technology platform and collections accessibility. Finalists present their prototypes to the Smithsonian and Verizon, and in virtual programs to the public.

“We believe that creative commissioning has a tremendous amount of potential for museums and other cultural sector institutions,” said Ginsberg. “Taking this kind of approach has been central to the Lab’s strategy since the start and we are thrilled to have been able to focus on such a compelling dataset as Smithsonian Open Access.”


Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab is specifically interested in tools that focus on 2D images from their Open Access collections. “We launched the open call with a very specific creative brief that specified the kinds of interactions we were interested in receiving from the teams,” said Ginsberg. “In particular, we wanted people to propose ways to engage with collections that moved beyond what we described as a ‘passive looking experience.” Smithsonian Open Access is an astonishing dataset that contains a tremendous range of materials. We felt strongly about wanting to present experiences that explore a diverse range of thought and an approach capable of reaching as wide a range of people as possible.”

As part of their creative brief, Cooper Hewitt highlighted seven focus areas for ASOA proposals:


Analyze and synthesize data from collections to draw conclusions or offer insights about the objects contained therein


Devise new modes of digital display for collections that offer compelling experiences in two- and three-dimensions, e.g. augmented reality, animation


Create context around objects by placing them in new environments

Creative Alteration

Tools that let users remix/alter objects, and/or considers objects as raw materials to build other kinds of interactions

Enhances Storytelling Capability

Creates focused narratives around an individual object or series of objects.


Increase the accessibility of Open Access collections for people with various physical and cognitive abilities. For example, integrating audio and visual descriptions; building multimodal interactions; or creating teaching tools with collections to engage those who benefit from different modalities

Play with Smithsonian Web Components

Expand and improve upon the Smithsonian’s open-source collection of web components, called Voyager. Voyager Story is the Smithsonian’s Open Source 3D Storytelling platform. It enables curators and other experts to create educational experiences around 3D objects by adding text, images, and tours. Since its creation, its components have been expanded to support advanced features like AR and more.

Cooper Hewitt’s goals for the process of commissioning include introducing new ideas to the museum, supporting the creation of compelling interactions with digital collections, and sharing the design stories behind their creation. “We’ll be publishing those as a series of blog posts written by ASOA teams in the weeks following our launch,” said Ginsberg. “We’ve also been able to collaborate with a wide range of practitioners from across the Smithsonian through this program and are looking forward to exploring future opportunities for these seven projects in other areas of the Institution.”

The Finalists

Seven teams were commissioned by Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab to develop new digital interactions and innovative tools. Teams received $10,000 each and will have ten weeks to create their project. The Smithsonian, Verizon, and industry experts will provide mentorship throughout and all teams will own their intellectual property that they create during the project.

“We’ve supported the creation of a truly diverse range of talented people and projects,” said Ginsberg. “It was our ambition to demonstrate a programmatic approach that could generate projects of real value to the creators and also to the Museum. We felt like we’ve accomplished that and are truly excited to see what comes next.”

Presenting the prototypes, the seven finalists for Activating Smithsonian Open Access


A data visualization tool that offers users a novel way to browse and learn about Smithsonian Open Access collections by analyzing visual characteristics of the dataset and compiling images into various configurations of clock interfaces.

TEAM: Zander Brimijoin, Daniel Scheibel, Greg Schomburg, Erin Stowell, Lisa Walters, Jiwon Ham


A web-based acoustic VR experience that reveals the acoustic attributes of 3D objects in the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections. Though created primarily for the blind and low vision community, the platform offers another way for all people to experience 3D objects.

TEAM: John Roach, Zhizhen (Jerry) Tan, Thomas Tajo


This experience will render 2D images of butterflies from Smithsonian Open Access collections into 3D format that invites users to learn more while offering a delightful augmented reality interaction.

TEAM: Jonathan Lee, Miriam Langer, Rianne Trujillo, Lauren Addario


Marrying physical and digital space, Doorways connects users to augmented reality experiences with Open Access collections out in the world featuring specific historical periods or events.

TEAM: Abigail Honor, Jean-Pierre Dufresne, Angelo Calilap, Gevorg Manukyan, Yan Vizinberg, Chris Cooper and Alex Robete


Democratize access to art and inspire conversations about ownership and digital repatriation by transforming 2D images of Open Access African art objects into 3D assets to be used in social AR experiences and other open-source projects.

TEAM: Mayowa Tomori, Olu Gbadegbo, and Olivia Cueva


A collaborative VR game where users search for objects selected from the Smithsonian’s Open Access dataset within an immersive environment and learn more about each object and its history.

TEAM: Jackie Lee, Ph.D, Yen-Ling Kuo, Caitlin Krause


As users write in this web-based creative tool, it identifies keywords in the writing, and dynamically generates visual narratives from Smithsonian Open Access collections to accompany essays, research, poetry, and more.

TEAM: Jono Brandel, Sunny Oh, Hiroaki Yamane

Surprises and Challenges

“This has been an incredible program to put on, but building and managing it was a complex task,” said Ginsberg. “This kind of open call approach isn’t common to the Smithsonian, so it took a lot of coordination among quite a large group of people to ensure that we were adhering to Smithsonian guidelines, and supporting our cohort in creating exciting work that would connect Cooper Hewitt and the Smithsonian to people all over the world. That said, I am tremendously thankful to have thoughtful, dedicated colleagues at Cooper Hewitt, throughout the Smithsonian, and supportive counterparts at Verizon 5G Labs. ASOA is the result of many people working behind the scenes to make sure the pieces fit together.”

Future Casting

After the first year devoted to discovery and the second year of adjustment due to the pandemic, Cooper Hewitt hopes that year three will be full of shared exploration, design opportunities, and exciting releases. “Our plans are focused on building on what we know is working–convening diverse groups of practitioners and the public for thoughtful discussion, co-creative research and prototyping, building dynamic partnerships with like-minded organizations and individuals, issuing provocations about the future of the museum sector, and collaborating with the design community on a reimagined Cooper Hewitt experience that considers how we work alongside what we make,” said Ginsberg.

On Tuesday, August 3 at 2 PM, Cooper Hewitt will present the prototypes from the seven finalists as part of a demo day in an hour-long webinar. The webinar is free and open to the public where finalists will share more details about their projects. Following the webinar, the prototypes will be available to the public for experimentation and exploration.

“Our creators are a dedicated and hardworking group of people, all bringing very different ways of thinking about digital experience powered by museum collections,” said Ginsberg. “Being able to demonstrate those ideas with working prototypes really changes the conversation about the future of projects like these at Cooper Hewitt and across the Smithsonian.”

Learn more about Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab–Activating Smithsonian Open Access:



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Museum Association of New York

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